Forget Dexter: Today’s Most Dangerous Serial Killer Is Coal

A new study highlights dramatic health problems in India and echoes the findings of U.S. agencies.

Steam and other emissions rise from a coal-fired power plant. (Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

Mar 13, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

The title of a new report from Greenpeace India and the Conservation Action Trust pretty much says it all: “Coal Kills.” But there’s also plenty of dirt in the details.

The Conservation Action Trust commissioned Urban Emissions, an organization dedicated to sharing scientific information on air pollution, to conduct the analysis for the study. They note that while there have been comprehensive investigations in the United States and parts of Europe into the health impacts of particulate air pollution attributed to coal power plants, similar data is hard to come by in India.

What they found was pretty shocking: From 2011 to 2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases.

And the study estimates the monetary cost associated with the health impacts—including hundreds of thousands of heart attacks, emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and lost work days caused by coal-based emissions—exceeds $3.3 to 4.6 billion per year.

“The health impacts of major coal projects are never really dealt with in the process of environmental clearances,” says Debi Goenka, the executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. “Given the fact that there are a huge number of new coal plants proposed to be set up in India—more than doubling the existing capacity—we thought it was important that this issue be looked at in greater detail.”

In the U.S., the statistics aren’t quite as bad, but a 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force noted that over 13,000 deaths each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants. 

Further, according to EPA, while coal power plants “are regulated by federal and state laws to protect human health and the environment, there is a wide variation of environmental impacts associated with power generation technologies.”

These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury compounds that are released into the air, as well as pollutants that build up in the water used in power plants’ boilers and cooling systems.

The EPA also notes that, “If the water used in the power plant is discharged to a lake or river, the pollutants in the water can harm fish and plants. Further, if rain falls on coal stored in piles outside the power plant, the water that runs off these piles can flush heavy metals from the coal, such as arsenic and lead, into nearby bodies of water.”

The news is also pretty bad for coal miners.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the prevalence of coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), often referred to as Black Lung Disease, has been increasing in mines of all sizes since 1999, and a more serious disease called Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF) has become more prevalent among miners from underground mines with fewer than 50 workers.

All of these findings make the data revealed in the Conservation Action Trust report especially important in India, where industry regulations are looser than in the U.S.

“The fact that health impacts are not addressed in the EIA process indicates the great weakness in the methodology followed by the Ministry of Environment & Forests in the manner in which they deal with the environmental clearance,” says Goenka.

“Project proponents invariably get away with statements to the effect that their projects will have no adverse impacts on human health, or on the environment, and that the technologies that they propose to install will address all these concerns,” he adds. “The fact that the Ministry of Environment & Forests doesn’t really enforce the environmental clearance conditions is the harsh reality that we have to live, or die, with.”

“If we are not in a position to monitor compliance of environmental clearance conditions, and we cannot even enforce our very lax standards, the only other options are to look at cleaner fuels—or even better, zero fuel renewable energy options.”

Do you think enough is being done to monitor the adverse effects of coal-fired power in the U.S.? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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